Sports Aren't Sex, They're War

In the run-up to this year's Super Bowl, two of our regular contributors, Alyssa Rosenberg and Hampton Stevens, will be discussing the challenges that face female sports fans, who are perhaps in greater number than ever. Alyssa began the conversation earlier this week with a note to Hampton about sexism at the stadium and in sports journalism. Yesterday, Hampton responded, and Alyssa wrote back. Today, Hampton writes about the nature of sports.


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Dear Alyssa,

Of course fans should feel physically safe. All fans. Everyone has the right to personal safety. Of course we agree that sexual harassment is unacceptable. When Brett Favre played for the Jets, women who spurned his creepy come-ons saw their careers suffer... allegedly. That's beyond gross and wrong. It's criminal. Rightfully so.

But it's a massive leap from believing that a woman shouldn't be sexually harassed in the workplace to thinking that all women, everywhere, should be kept safe from feeling like second-class sports fans. That's impossible because of how men communicate—especially how we communicate about sports—but also because of the nature of sport itself. Our conflict about fandom, it seems to me, stems from a fundamental disagreement about what that nature is.

Sure, sports can be sexy. The athletes have beautiful bodies, and they can do beautiful things with them. But sports are not about sex. The notion of sex as being the essential truth at the heart of sports strikes me as a major misreading—of both history, and of how sports function in our society today.

Richard Greenberg is a fine playwright, but sports were emphatically not born in the Garden of Eden. They were born on Mount Olympus. There's absolutely nothing Judeo-Christian about the idea of staging athletic competitions for public consumption. The concept is purely pagan. For the ancient Greeks, athletics were utterly central to the notion of the good life, and it's no coincidence that the Greek word for athletic competition was the same as the word for battle. While the game of American football (i.e. land acquisition through force) may be the most obvious example, all organized sports are a form of symbolic combat. Sports aren't sex, in short. They are war. They are stylized combat—either as a training ground for real warfare or a psychological substitute for it.

Granted, the average straight male football fan too often denies or ignores the game's sexual subtext. But those female and gay male fans you describe? They make the opposite mistake—they put too much emphasis on the sexual subplot and so miss the main narrative: violence. On a court, gridiron, pitch, or diamond, the point isn't to look pretty while playing. You play, like the man said, to win the game—and you do so by physically imposing your will on the opposition.

The idea that sports are about sex strikes me as an intellectualized version of mentioning that you find a player handsome. It introduces aesthetics into a realm where aesthetics should play no part. Essentially, it tries to make art out of a competition. That doesn't work.

At the ballet, you don't cheer only for hometown dancers and jeer when visitors fall. You don't watch Swan Lake to bet on the outcome. In the same way, talking about sex during a football game—injecting aesthetics into the masculine realm of sports—is just plain missing the point.

In no way is that to suggest that sports fandom—or sports—are meant for men alone. Obviously not. Women can and should be in the bleachers, in the front office, and on the field—especially on the field. Sports are empowering. Title IX, for all its ludicrous bureaucratic side-effects, has been a dazzling success, with positive effects that reach far past the playing field.

Sure, women can be strong. No matter who might be playing the game, though, the games themselves celebrate qualities traditionally associated with masculinity—like strength, speed, agility, and the willingness to endure pain on behalf of teammates. Maybe the most celebrated virtue in sports, considering you hear it praised by broadcasters an average of 1,000 times a game, is the willingness to compete. The unquenchable desire to prove yourself better than everyone else.

One of my favorite moments in all of football was during the famous Tuck Rule game, between your Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. Down in the fourth quarter, the Patriots defense made a stop. As Tedy Bruschi was running off the field, he passed Tom Brady coming on it. Bruschi pointed at his quarterback and said two words. You didn't need to be a lip-reader to know what they were.

"Prove it," he said.

Bruschi didn't need to say more, and there wasn't any question about what Brady was supposed to prove, either. Just thinking about it gives me the chills.

That competitiveness naturally extends to the vicarious world of fandom. Being a fan is a perpetual process of proving yourself to friends, even while banding together against a common foe—just as teammates do. That's how it's supposed to work. In NASCAR, they call it "coopetition." Hey, I've written for ESPN. Theoretically, at least, that means I must know a little about sports. You might think my own circle of friends would give me props, respectfully listening when I'm dropping knowledge. Not so much. Just like anyone, I'm always getting razzed and shot down. Big deal. A certain amount hostility, of being made to feel "second-class," is inherent to the experience of being a fan, because it's inherent to the nature of sports.

You claim you don't want to disturb the brutal rites of male bonding, as exemplified by the locker-room mentality at Deadspin. At the same time, you want women to be protected from that brutality. That's a problem. Maybe what men and women want from fandom is irreconcilable. Who knows? But wanting female fans free to join the fray, yet always feel to safe and accepted while within it, is what feels irreconcilable to me.